Architecture is a Verb

Some proclivities are sui generis, perennially present as a life unfolds. That is the sense I get when George Saunders expresses the discomfort he still feels about his childhood failure to befriend a lonely girl in his neighborhood. For Saunders, gifted author and teacher, kindness and humility are built in.

I have a primordial proclivity too, though it is not as altruistic as Saunders’ deep seated compassion. Mine surfaced in childhood when I was confronted by a religious tradition that valued my brothers over me. Even at three I knew enough to say no to that. And the battle for personal sovereignty was not just confined to inequitable theocracies. I struggled with many of the airtight, “we’ve got this,” vertical power structures so plentiful in the 50’s and 60’s—patriarchy, capitalism, Freudianism, scientific positivism, academia. Unapologetically designed for and by white men, these systems were inhospitable to qualities I valued: gender and race equality, bottom up leadership, creative thinking, anti-authoritarianism, intuition.

These are concepts that still matter to me. And while many cultural circumstances have improved since then, the membrane is still being stretched thin to make room for more horizontality, more inclusivity, more interconnectedness and fluidity. In the words of the inimitable Donna Haraway, “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.”

Life is so much more than the Procrustean Cartesian version of a mind residing in a individual body. Gregory Bateson–another provocative member of the UC Santa Cruz community prior to Donna Haraway’s arrival–frequently emphasized how confusion is needed to release something new. We are embedded in a reality that is so much larger than just our tiny point of view. In the words of his daughter Nora Bateson, “in the space between the instrument, the musician, the notes, the audience, and silence, the song arrives. It is not in the instrument, nor is it in the musician, nor in the silence.”

The breakdown of legacy systems–top down, power over, insulated, incomplete—is happening across many disciplines. Science has embraced a newfound humility, increasingly turning to the humanities for more cooperation as it becomes clear that research alone cannot provide complete answers. Social, political and philosophical trends are moving away from the linear and formulaic to lean more heavily into interdependence, inclusivity, complexity.

A bit closer to my home base in the visual arts, friend and artist Taney Roniger has been a vocal advocate for embracing a posthumanist art. In December 2020 she mounted a 10 day symposium, Thingly Affinities: Rethinking Aesthetic Form For a Posthumanist Future. (Full transcript available here.) Bringing together a variety of contributors from the visual arts, music, performance, philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and literature, the symposium explored new ways to see, be, understand, connect. “With the thinker that thought itself into the center of the world silenced,” Roniger writes, “we become living organisms again just like all others, participating in, and exquisitely sensitive to, the dynamic flux of the natural world.”

Also close to home is a new book by another friend, Sarah Robinson: Architecture is a Verb. (Her prior book Nesting is discussed here.) As an architect of exquisitely inhabitable spaces, Robinson is very well versed in the built environment and its implications.

This book is so much more than a treatise on architecture however. Her brilliant mind and breathtaking wingspan have produced a work that captures how transformative “embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended” (4e cognition) consciousness can actually be when applied to a tradition as deep and rich as architecture. Intelligence is located in the mutual interactions between body, mind and world, states Robinson, and her book demonstrates that boldly.

I am utterly enamored with Architecture is a Verb. I keep going back to reconsider the depth and breadth of the ideas assembled inside. Every page of my copy is filled with my notations, evidence of an ongoing and lively conversation. As architectural historian and theorist Alberto PérezGómez asserts, Robinson’s book is not offering a method. Rather it is meant to “evoke and resonate, and make you think.”

Robinson describes her undertaking as “situated poetics” which she defines as the skill to “cultivate meanings that are already there—it is not so much creation as revelation—in an attitude of tenderness and acts of exquisite care.”

Under that aegis of tenderness and exquisite care, Robinson is a wise and gentle guide into a new consciousness that stitches together a network of interactions, relationships, connectivity, inclusivity, collective consciousness.

A few passages from the book highlight the range of her knowledge:

Our sense of invincibility is finally giving way to our sense of interdependence—and this coming to terms with the myriad ways in which we are woven into the world places all the more responsibility on those whose business it is to do the weaving.

Long neglected subjective experience is gradually being legitimized through instrumental methods, and we gain to profit from this alliance. Addressing architecture as a verb—asking not what a building is in an object sense, but what it does in the sense of on ongoing dynamic process—can inform our practice in just this radical way, if by radical we mean radici, Latin, meaning ‘from the roots.’

Art not only orders experience, it is uniquely suited to be a cipher of the future’s unfolding. The overwhelming tendency to allow experimentations only to science laboratories misunderstands the artist’s critical cultural role. Artists open new fields of experience, and their ability to reveal unforeseen dimensions in the familiar is in large part due to the open experimental method.

An unexpected but essential element in the book is the “Taxonomy of Interactions.” Based on Jean Gebser’s seminal work, The Ever Present Origin, Robinson creates a framework that offers a syncretistic and practical expansion of Gebser’s five states of consciousness (archaic, magic, mythic, mental and integral structure.) As Robinson points out, “Awareness of the integration of multiple layers of consciousness in the present moment was Gebser’s ultimate intention: the cohesion of the archaic, the resonance and making of magic, the dreams and memories of myth, the abstraction and systematization of the mental—functioning together in a shared weave.”

Embedded in Robinson’s taxonomy is a range of essential concepts—from Breathing, Resistance and Touching under Archaic to Inhabiting and Playing that sit under Integral. Taking it down yet another step, subcategories under Inhabiting include Concrete not abstract, Gracing the Cycles of Daily Life, Architecture of Moments. These explorations are offered in the context of architecture, but they also apply so fittingly to how a life is lived. The fact that Robinson can so effortlessly include this structural armature while still preserving the fluid and open quality of the book is evidence of her formidable skills as a writer and thinker.

Architecture is a Verb has the vibe of a book that, while written with a particular audience in mind, speaks powerfully to others as well. These spill over books become classics and continue to be read years after they first appear. A few examples from my library come to mind: The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn; A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander et al; The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. Ideas from these writers have taken on lives of their own, burrowing deep into our collective efforts to see, perceive, comprehend with more clarity.

Perhaps part of having a long arc of influence is related to a quote Robinson includes from one of her most admired thinkers, John Dewey: “Because the artist is a lover of unalloyed experience, he shuns objects that are already saturated, and he is therefore always on the growing edge of things.” In writing Architecture is a Verb, Robinson has found a rich and deeply rewarding edge.

4 Replies to “Architecture is a Verb”

  1. Deborah, thanks for this beautiful & profound reflection, your introduction to Sara Robinson, and your shout-out to so many thinkers & writes I also admire.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Michael, This book is so full of ideas and yet it does not overwhelm. Thank you so much for your words. It means a lot that you read and respond to my writings.

  2. “Confusion is needed to release something new.” Uncomfortable but so true.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Facing it head on! Thanks so much Ann.

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